Time to be civil, constable: After this week's criticism of 'oppressive' police methods by the judge in the Nikki Allen murder trial, Alastair Logan describes his own experiences of a force that is too often failing to provide the service it should

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The Independent Online
WHILE driving home alone in the rain recently a middle-aged female client of mine, who is a single mother and self-employed, stopped at some red traffic lights. A group of youths were offering to wash the windscreens of cars waiting at the lights. One of them approached her and asked if she wanted her windscreen cleaned. She declined, whereupon the youth grabbed the wiper, snapping it. He proceeded to do the same to the rear wiper and then walked off.

She was too afraid to get out of the car and none of the other motorists ventured to assist her. She drove to the nearest police station and reported the incident. A young male police officer told her that the traffic lights were in their area, but the youths were not their responsibility and the police could not help. She left the police station having received neither assistance nor sympathy. The cost of repairing the wipers was pounds 300.

Two nights later she drove into her local town to collect her teenage daughter from evening classes. She arrived to find her daughter frightened and in tears. She said that a drunk had pinned her against a wall because she had been unwilling to buy a copy of the Big Issue magazine from him. My client drove to the police station and reported the matter, only to be told bluntly that the police did not investigate such incidents. She left feeling confused and angry.

Soon afterwards she received a visit from two CID officers who were investigating an allegation that she had paid for some copy-typing with a cheque for pounds 200 that she had subsequently stopped. The officers woke her daughter, who was alone in the house when they called, and insisted on waiting for her mother without saying what they wanted to speak to her about. When my client returned they began a hostile interview, accusing her of defrauding the local business that had undertaken her copy-typing. Angry at their hostility, she explained that she had been charged more than the estimate and had found the typed copy useless when she had examined it at home: it had been typed on paper stamped 'proof' and was full of defects. This is why she had stopped the cheque.

She said she had expressly told the business that she objected to the cost and that she needed to consult her business partner before deciding whether to pay the full charge demanded of pounds 500. The police then changed tack and demanded that she produce a bank statement to show that she had pounds 200 in her account when she drew the cheque. Since she had not yet received her statement for that month, she told them she would need to obtain a copy from the bank. The officers left, giving her a tight deadline by which to bring it down to the police station or she would be in trouble. At no stage was she arrested or cautioned.

What no one told my client in relation to the assault on her daughter was that there is a policy in most police forces not to investigate or prosecute for trivial offences. Common assault, where there is no visible injury, falls into that category. That policy is the direct result of financial constraints on police and the criminal justice system.

These sad events may seem trivial, but such incidents occur with distressing frequency. They highlight the gulf between the Home Secretary's rhetoric and the reality of policing today. They also show that it is the approach and attitude of the police, as much as what they do, that affects their relations with the public.

Civility and sympathy cost nothing and would not interfere with police duties. The interview with my client could have been conducted in a civil manner, giving the police the facts they sought and my client the feeling that she had helped clear up a misunderstanding. Instead, someone who respected the police and their onerous responsibilities has been alienated by sheer bad manners. If the police are to provide a service, they must recognise that they owe the public a duty to care, to explain whenever possible and to behave with respect.

The fight against crime should be a partnership between the public, police and the criminal justice system, but we cannot ignore the cost implications. This means the Government must be honest with the public about the limitations on police resources - and the policy implications of that. It also means we must make best use of the resources we have. Public confidence in the police is a vital resource; greater confidence means more crime will be reported. But it would also result in more information being offered to help catch the criminals. And if the likelihood of detection is increased, this will deter those who would commit crime.

Too often, those who come into contact with the police or the criminal justice system feel they have not been treated with respect or have been abused and their contribution wasted. These are not usually people who have been or will be charged with offences, but law-abiding citizens upon whom the police should be able to rely. They are witnesses and jurors, or the parents, relatives and friends of those who come into contact with the system. If such people feel they have not been treated with respect or have been ignored or marginalised, they will become disaffected, and the disaffection will spread as they tell others about their experiences.

Road traffic is one area where many of those who might be expected to support the police wholeheartedly become disaffected. If traffic patrols were drawn from non-police sources, they could be trained in techniques that would accentuate courtesy and elicit a positive response from the public.

Perhaps the police should find out what the public think of their service by asking them to complete questionnaires routinely after any contact with the force, whether it results in a charge or not. In cases where the police do nothing, show total lack of concern, or behave with gratuitous aggression, there can be great damage to relations between the police and the public, as my client's experience so shows so graphically.

Alastair Logan is a solicitor who acted on behalf of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.

(Photograph omitted)